If pitching a tent on a tropical island is your thing, add Anclote Key to your bucket list.
Anclote Key Preserve State Park is in the Gulf of Mexico off Tarpon Springs, three miles over open water and accessible only by boat.
The four-mile-long island is an especially popular destination for weekend kayakers with its five miles of pristine white-sand beaches and offshore sandbars.
You’ll also find excellent bird watching, a historic 1887 lighthouse and primitive camping.
Anclote Key Preserve State Park is comprised of four islands — Anclote Key, North Anclote Bar, South Anclote Bar and Three Rooker Island, all popular with boaters who bring their beach chairs, umbrellas, paddleboards and snorkeling gear for weekend adventures.
On weekdays, you pretty much have the island to yourself
Camping on Anclote Key
Camping is permitted only in the primitive campground area on the north end of the island. Beach camping is allowed, as are campfires, but do not cut down any trees. Fuel your campfire with dead limbs.
The campground does have a composting toilet, but that’s about it. There is no water, no grills and no waste receptacles. Bring everything you need with you and take everything out.
Raccoons do inhabit the island, and they have very little to drink, so carefully protect your water and food supplies from curious (and hungry) critters. Strong bungee cords wrapped securely around any cooler storing water or food will help. At night, I usually pull a kayak up over the cooler as well.
There are no grills, but campfires are allowed on the beach. Cutting live limbs from trees or brush is not permitted, but you can pick up dry wood and dead limbs from the ground. Rangers request that you build your fire below the high tide line.
For more tips on kayak camping, be sure to read Kayak Camping: Sharkchow’s Checklist
While camping is free, campers have to call 727-638-4447 to check in. Have your boat registration number, number of campers, arrival and departure dates and a contact phone number off island in case of emergency.
A wide variety of shorebirds nest on Anclote Key and its beaches, making it one of the top five birding destinations in the state.
The 403-acre park is home to at least 43 species of birds, including the American oystercatcher, bald eagle and piping plover.
Rangers are particularly sensitive about people who disturb the birds, which is why pets are not allowed on the islands.
Launching your boat
Fred Howard Park, 1700 Sunset Drive, Tarpon Springs. Parking fee is $5 daily. Easy launch into St. Joseph Sound from the beach or through a mangrove trail. If you decide not to paddle out to Anclote Key, you can paddle a wee bit north to access Lake Avoca. If you stay inside, though, watch the tides. It gets pretty shallow at low tide. It’s a two-mile paddle from the beach to the south end of Anclote Key, the closest point.
Anclote River Park, 1119 Baillie’s Bluff Rd., Holiday, FL. It’s about three miles to the nearest point on Anclote Key from this park. There is a $2 admission fee and a $5 per day boat-launch fee. You can park your vehicle overnight.
Anclote Gulf Park, 2305 Baileys Bluff Road, Holiday, FL. The paddle from this launch is about four miles to the north end of Anclote Key. There is a $2 parking fee.
GPS for Paddlers
Lighthouse coordinates: N 2810.020 W 08250.687
Taking a ferry (No campers)
Day visitors can take the ferry out to Anclote Key, but the ferry will not transport overnight campers. You need your own boat if you plan to camp overnight.
Boat tours to Anclote Key are multi-purpose: You tour the Anclote River and hear a little Tarpon Springs history, you gaze on the Gulf waters and spot dolphins, you see a variety of birds (including magnificent frigate birds on our trip) and you get a short stop on the island itself.
The tours give visitors enough time to walk the the perfect sandy beaches of Anclote Key but do not include visiting the lighthouse. (Twice a year, in September and December, special trips are conducted that include lighthouse tours where visitors can climb its 140-step spiral staircase.)
Ferry service to the island is offered by and Sponge-O-Rama (727) 943-2164. These ferries leave from Tarpon Springs’ historic Sponge Docks, and reservations are strongly advised.
Note: The Friends of Anclote Key State Park host visitors who can climb the lighthouse the second weekend of January, February, March, April and May, 2024. Details are here. You must arrange your own transportation.
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Bob Rountree is a beach bum, angler and camper who has explored Florida for decades. No adventure is complete without a scenic paddle trail or unpaved road to nowhere. Bob co-founded FloridaRambler.com with fellow journalist Bonnie Gross 14 years ago.